Over the holidays, I rented The Interview, the much-talked-about comedy from Seth Rogen, James Franco and company. As I expected, it was mostly amusing, occasionally over-the-top ridiculous and often sophomoric, but as I watched and thought about the controversy surrounding the movie’s release, I was consistently reminded of the level of secrecy surrounding North Korea and how difficult it has been for interested onlookers to receive any reliable information about the country and its people.
There have been a handful of solid histories and political/cultural appraisals of North Korea over the past few years—Paul French’s North Korea, Andrei Lankov’s The Real North Korea, Victor Cha’s The Impossible State, not to mention Guy DeLisle’s fascinating graphic treatment, Pyongyang—but I have been particularly intrigued by one recent book and one upcoming book about the notoriously impenetrable nation.
In Without You, There Is No Us, Suki Kim, who was born in South Korea and lived there until she immigrated to the United States when she was 13, chronicles her time teaching English at a school outside of Pyongya ng, where she faced constant surveillance and nearly unbelievable strictness and censorship regarding her lesson plans. In our review, we noted how Kim effectively “directs the lights of emotion and intelligence on a country where ignorance is far from bliss.”
Paul Fischer’s A Kim Jong-il Production, publishing Feb. 3, tells the bizarre story of the Kim Jong-Il–sanctioned abduction of a pair of well-known South Korean filmmakers in order to boost the North Korean film industry, essentially just a propaganda factory for the leader and his government. Kirkus called it a “meticulously detailed feat of rare footage inside the DPRK’s propaganda machinery.”
Though neither provides a straightforward history of North Korea or fully makes sense of its government’s lunacy, both books illuminate some of the darker corners of the regime (and if you’re really intrigued by North Korea, there’s another book, Blaine Harden’s The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, coming out in March). —E.L.
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor at Kirkus Reviews.